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Lost in the Many Mixes

[whitespace] the Olivia Tremor Control
Amy Hairston

Guitars in Space: The riffs come from all points along the musical continuum when the Olivia Tremor Control gets loose in the studio.

The Olivia Tremor Control lays a heavy hand on the mixing board

By Gina Arnold

DON'T LISTEN TO the Olivia Tremor Control if your CD player has a tendency to skip. To do so will only confuse and irritate you, as you become ever more convinced that your equipment is broken. But it's not your equipment. That's just how this band records: with stutters, stops, starts and silences--not to mention numerous odd-sounding instruments like melodica and trombone.

For the Olivia Tremor Control, the more instruments, the merrier--no matter what cacophony ensues. The members are as busy as little bees, cramming everything arty they can think of into their work. The band's first LP, Dusk at Cubist Castle, was actually two CDs that were supposed to be played simultaneously for that 48-track George Martinesque effect.

The Beatles and the Flaming Lips have done similar experiments. But one has to ask, Does this music really need 48 tracks to get its point across? The answer is invariably no. The Olivia Tremor Control's latest, Black Foliage (Flydaddy), does limit itself to fewer tracks, but it's as busy and buzzy as ever.

This is music for total sound geeks who spend $3,000 on a stereo system that picks up every little nuance, and--to be blunt--the very stoned among us. Now, the music world abounds with this type of listener, beginning in the '60s with hi-fi aficionados who bought what is now known as "bachelor-pad music." Nowadays, in a guise that involves soul patches and goatees, they buy the Olivia Tremor Control and other bands of the Elephant 6 Collective, a group of musicians who make elaborate home recordings on elflike themes.

Elephant 6 was started by Julian Koster, who used to front the more tuneful Chocolate USA and who now contributes to the Olivia Tremor Control. With Chocolate USA, sonic experimentation set in real songs was tolerable. With the Olivia Tremor Control, it's horrid. The band does not, to its credit, traffic in the kind of bombastic rock that Pink Floyd and Todd Rundgren do. Instead, it's a low-fi, low-cost venture that works deep inside the college radio/ independent-label network.

A cult has been created around the Olivia Tremor Control. The fact that its LP is all but unlistenable doesn't stop Spin and the Village Voice from touting it ad infinitum. And it is true that, in between the unlistenable bits of sonic crap, the Olivia Tremor Control is very talented. There are plenty of tuneful and nice bits on Black Foliage, but the great distance between them makes it hard to sit through the whole damn LP.

Track #4, "Hideaway," for example, is a nice three-minute song. So is the last track, "Hilltop Procession." But if you put Black Foliage on at track #1 or #8, you'll be convinced that your stereo is broken. And it would take the patience of a saint to listen to "Side 3." These kinds of so-called dream sequences are all very well when friends are simply swapping tapes--which used to be the Elephant 6 modus operandi. But to make people pay good money for it is another thing entirely--unless, of course, you have a super stereo system, very good weed and a lot of aural patience.

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From the April 21-28, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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